Why Pay Attention?

By Jeni Juarez

When my oldest daughter, Elaina, first tried tying her own shoes, she couldn’t figure it out. She immediately became frustrated and said, “I can’t do it.” When I softly suggested that she try again, she gave me an emphatic, “NO!”. Oh no, I thought… this sounds a bit like someone else I know who struggles with getting things wrong…me.

Who likes to be bad at things? Definitely not me. So, as you can imagine, I’ve begun to notice how this not-liking-to-suck attitude has invited me to become very risk-averse. If there’s a chance of failure, I’ll take a pass. Easy route? Yes please!

The most obvious problem with being unwilling to try new things for fear of failing is, it’s boring! It’s the monotony of a routine day that becomes a routine week, a routine year, and a routine life. It’s the ultimate hamster wheel. I liken it to a prison for my spirit.

The less obvious problem with valuing consistency over growth is, stagnation breeds complacency, apathy, depression, fatigue, disease, and ultimately death. Woah! That’s a lot of unpleasant words in a row, none of which I want for myself, let alone the people I love!

By widening my awareness enough to recognize the slippery slope of stagnation to atrophy, I can see the vast importance of other qualities such as curiosity, courage, grit, and most importantly, attention.

Why is attention most important? Let me explain.

There’s an excellent quote by Moshe Feldenkrais that says, “You can’t do what you want until you know what you are doing.”

I love that quote. For me it means that if I’m not paying attention to how life is unfolding for me, I cannot identify what is and is not contributing to my joy, peace of mind, health, and general well-being. If I can’t identify what feels out of alignment within me, I can’t access my inner guidance of how to bring myself back into harmony. Recognizing this, I understand that the quality of my attention determines the quality of my life.

So how does paying attention relate to not wanting to learn how to tie shoes?

Mindfulness and other meditation practices are thousands of years old techniques for cultivating Ekāgratā – one-pointedness or undisturbed attention. There are so many avenues for exploring mindfulness, both traditional and secular, to help us settle our focus.

When I first sat down to meditate, I immediately realized how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to train my mind to settle on one thing. I have to tell you, my brain is constantly on fire: thinking random thoughts (hello, song lyrics!), re-creating past events and conversations, worrying about or rehearsing future conversations, recalling things I’ve read about… and then when I’m invited by the teacher or guided meditation to notice body sensations, YIKES! I become the princess and the pea: every little disturbance makes me twitchy, and suddenly my whole body is achy, my nose itches and my feet are asleep, and when did I develop restless leg syndrome? This is crazy; somebody make it stop! Ahhh!!!!

So, I decided that meditation wasn’t for me, thankyouverymuch.

Little did I realize that the Yoga I was incorporating into my workouts is a form of moving meditation; sitting and fully listening to a podcast or song is meditation; painting my nails with intricate designs is meditation; immersing my attention in cooking a meal is meditation; taking a bath is meditation; running is meditation; reading is meditation, and…. Okay, you get it.

ANYTHING can become a meditation if you pay attention to what you’re doing while you’re doing it!

As soon as you notice that your mind has run off like a curious toddler, you say “Come on back, sweetie. Stay with me.” And you begin again. And again. If you’re like me, you might need to begin again a million times in 5 minutes, but that’s okay, because it’s not the staying that’s important; it’s the coming BACK that is the actual goal of meditation. Whew! What a relief.

It bears mentioning that these changes happen so subtly and over such a long period of time, that it often feels like nothing is happening until after some time has passed and you reflect on your experiences.

Remember that awful feeling of not getting something ‘right’ right away? What if I told you that there’s no ‘right’ way to meditate either? Does that free you or make you panicky?

For me, it’s total Freedom! Let me tell you why..

If I can’t get meditation “right” or “wrong”, then I don’t have to care about how it’s going. And when my inner judge pops up and tells me that my last meditation was better than today’s, I can say “thanks buddy, but there is no right way.”

Ah, but there’s another trap! The next thing the judge says is, “You haven’t meditated in weeks.” or “You can’t handle more than 10 minutes of silence – you suck!” That’s when the voices of the compassionate teachers – the ones who’ve travelled this road before me and for long enough to recognize the guideposts – come in: “Do what you want! There is no rush, and there is nowhere to go. Take your time, and do what feels right to you.”

Okay, there it is! “Do what feels right.” How do I know what feels right to me? I would have to know what feels wrong first. And that means I have to pay attention to what feels out of sync in my mind, my body, and my heart: What uncomfortable emotions or memories are present? What habits take me further out of harmony with myself? What pains in the body are restricting my vitality? What negative and judgmental thoughts are triggering my depression and anxiety?

Yuck! Who the hell wants to deal with that stuff? Well, someone who doesn’t want to feel imprisoned by that “stuff” anymore – that’s who.

So, here we find ourselves back at the beginning.

When I first recognized that I was on a “path” of cultivating mindfulness, I decided that if I could take one, just ONE, conscious, intentional, full breath a day, that would be a vast improvement to my typical hamster-wheel, brain-in-a-jar existence. So, that’s where I started. If it sounds reasonable to you, maybe that’s where you start too.

Take a comfortable, dignified seat with your spine erect.
Feel your feet press down onto the ground and rest your palms gently on your thighs.
Allow your shoulder blades to soften down the back of your rib cage until you feel your
heart lift gently and your neckline open.
Let the chin lower softly as you lengthen the back of your neck.

Now, feeling the body settled in the chair, guide your attention to your next breath.
Feel as it draws in through the nose, expanding the chest,
drawing the diaphragm muscles down in the belly.
And as you slowly release the breath through the nose,
feel the belly and shoulders soften; the eyes feel soft, the mind a bit more calm.

So, what do you think?
One mindful breath a day – are you up to the challenge?

See, from my perspective, here we all are, living together on this planet, one day at a time. We may as well play around with these concepts and experiment with what makes our lives more joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful. And if one mindful breath a day gets me a little closer to that, sign me up!

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